The role of good industrial relations

Implementation of climate change measures invariably involves the world's workplaces, the hub of production and much of the world's consumption. Effective change, however, will require the involvement of workers and their trade unions, working with employers to change the way in which they burn energy, consume resources and generate waste, as well as to affect personal patterns (e.g. the way in which they travel to and from work). Workers can only be confident that their interests are being taken into account if they play a role in planning and implementation, with full accountability and transparency - hence the need for industrial relations models based on participation and dialogue, as contemplated in Chapter 29 of Agenda 21, which defined a role in sustainable development for workers and trade unions.2

The most effective trade union mechanism for this purpose is the workplace committee for environment or occupational health, whose primary mandate is to educate members, as well as undertake such activities as research and monitoring of company performance. Article 6 of the New Delhi Programme of Work asks parties to advance and report on activities for public awareness through education and training as a route to public participation and access to information, and, in many countries, trade unions are in the best position to contribute, as they are the largest single provider of informal adult education. The USWA also points out that:

Workers are in a key position in the fight for environmental quality. Violations of pollution regulations can be difficult for the public to spot. Nor is it possible for the government to monitor continuously every potential polluter. It is much harder to hide illegal or other inappropriate behaviour from plant workers. And through collective bargaining and the power of the union, organized workers have an especially effective tool for ensuring cleanup or sustainable forms of production. (USWA, 2002, p34)

Dialogue is also the key ingredient in over 2 million collective agreements negotiated by trade unions worldwide. These are supplemented by European works councils and the framework agreements that provide a platform of standards that a multinational company must apply wherever it operates in the world, even where national law is lacking. Recently in Germany, the works council has provided the right of workers to request and obtain information pertaining to the environmental performance of their enterprise. One of the earliest, between the ICEM and Statoil in 1998, was endorsed by the company vice president who acknowledged unions as 'globe-spanning knowledge-based organizations. They give us early warning of problems we should be aware of, and allow us to take early action to mitigate risks.' Companies that take a cooperative rather than adversarial stance towards civil society and labour, he said, 'have history on their side' (ICEM, 2006).

Dialogue on workplace action is being actively promoted at the level of the plant, the sector and nationally. The Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD is committed to work with the business arm of the OECD on climate change and energy concerns, as well as with the OECD Environmental Policy Committee (EPOC). The ETUC study recommends an extension of this type of dialogue to include a tripartite European dialogue on implementation of adaptation and mitigation based on the model of Kyoto round tables in Spain, as well as a European Observatory on the economic and social upheavals linked with climate change to be tasked with supporting the development of industrial relations in this new area (ETUC, 2006).

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